Theravada Buddhism FAQ’s

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism Authors Details: John Bullitt FAQ’s Buddhist Channel 2005

1. What is Theravada Buddhism? – Is Vipassana the same as Theravada?
2. If we’re all reborn when we die, how does Buddhism explain the world’s increasing population?
3. I hear the word “sangha” used a lot these days in Buddhist circles. What does it really mean?
4. What’s the difference between a Buddha and an arahant? – Have there been other Buddhas? – What’s a “Private Buddha” (paccekabuddha)? – Who is Maitreya (Metteyya)?

Theravada Buddhism

1. Is Vipassana the same as Theravada?

No. The Pali word vipassana — often translated as “insight” — has a variety of meanings. First, it refers to the flash of liberating intuitive understanding that marks the culmination of Buddhist meditation practice.

In the Pali discourses vipassana also refers to the mind’s ability to witness clearly as events unfold in the present moment. In this sense it is a skill that a meditator develops using a broad arsenal of meditative tools and techniques. With practice, this skill can bring the meditator to the threshold of liberating insight.

In its third meaning, one that has become especially popular in the West in recent years, “Vipassana” (usually with a capital “V”) refers to a system of meditation — vipassana bhavana, or “Insight Meditation” — that is based on an interpretation of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), the Buddha’s concise “how-to” guide to the development of mindfulness (sati).

[1] Followers of the popular Vipassana movement often cite the Satipatthana Sutta as the essence of the Buddha’s teachings; some even claim that the instructions it contains are the only ones necessary for achieving liberating insight. Theravada Buddhism, by contrast, embraces the thousands of discourses of the Pali Canon, each highlighting a different aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. In Theravada each discourse supports, depends upon, reflects, and informs all the others; even a discourse as important as the Satipatthana Sutta is seen as but a single thread in the Buddha’s complex tapestry of teachings.

Although many students do find all they want in Vipassana, some have a nagging sense that something fundamental is missing. This reaction is hardly surprising, since the Satipatthana discourse itself was delivered to a group of relatively advanced students who were already quite experienced and well established in the path of Dhamma practice. Happily, all those missing pieces can be found in the Pali Canon. In the Canon we find the Buddha’s teachings on generosity and virtue, the twin pillars upon which all spiritual practice is built. His teachings on the recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha serve to strengthen the development of saddha (faith, confidence), which provides a potent fuel to sustain Dhamma practice long after we return home from that meditation retreat. In the Canon we also find his teachings on the drawbacks of sensuality and the value of renunciation; on developing all the factors in the Eightfold Path, including those that are seldom explored during organized Vipassana retreats: right speech, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration (meaning jhana). And there is much, much more.

In Theravada Buddhism, the path to liberating insight does not boil down to a single meditation technique or to being continuously mindful. The path to Awakening is full of surprising twists and turns but, thankfully, the Buddha left for us an assortment of tools to use and skills to learn to help us safely make the journey.

1. The modern Vipassana movement grew out of the tradition of Satipatthana Vipassana, a meditation system based on the Satipatthana Sutta and developed by Burmese monks in the early 20th century. By the 1950’s the Burmese teachers Sayagyi U Ba Khin (a layman; 1899-1971) and Mahasi Sayadaw (a monk; 1904-1982) had independently codified and institutionalized these teachings, making them widely accessible across South Asia and, eventually, the West. The Satipatthana Vipassana approach to meditation continues to enjoy widespread popularity among laypeople in the West.

2. If we’re all reborn when we die, how does Theravada Buddhism explain the world’s increasing population?

According to Buddhist cosmology, when a living being[1] passes away he or she is reborn into one of thirty-one distinct “planes” or “realms” of existence, of which the human realm is just one. An increase in the human population simply implies that creatures from other planes are being reborn into the human realm at a rate faster than humans are dying. Likewise, a decline in the human population would imply that humans, upon death, are taking rebirth in other planes (or exiting samsara altogether) at a rate faster than other creatures are taking rebirth as humans. These sorts of population shifts have been occurring for countless eons and in themselves hold little cosmic significance.

1. Except an arahant, a fully-enlightened being. Arahants have escaped the round of rebirths once and for all and, upon death, are not reborn.

3. I hear the word “sangha” used a lot these days in Buddhist circles. What does it really mean?

The Pali word “sangha” literally means “group” or “congregation”, but when it is used in the suttas, the word usually refers to one of two very specific kinds of groups: either the community of Buddhist monastics (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis), or the community of people who have attained at least the first stage of Awakening. In recent decades, a new usage of the word has emerged in the West, one that seems to have no basis in classical Theravada Buddhist teachings: the usage of the word “sangha” to describe a meditation group or any sort of spiritual community.
It sounds innocent enough, but this particular usage can — and often does — lead to profound confusion concerning one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the Buddha’s teachings, the going for refuge in the Triple Gem.

The act of going for refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha
marks a major turning point in one’s spiritual development, the real start of the journey down the Buddhist path.
It helps foster a healthy attitude towards Buddhist practice by encouraging the development of right view, and serves as a constant reminder both of the goal of practice and of the means to achieve that goal. It is therefore crucial to be clear and precise about the meaning of the refuges, lest we end up heading down a road quite different from the one the Buddha had in mind.

In taking refuge in the Sangha, we set our inner sights on the ideal community of Noble Ones (ariya-sangha) — those monks, nuns, laywomen, and laymen who, throughout history, have by their own diligent efforts successfully carried out the Buddha’s instructions and gained at least a glimpse of the supreme happiness of nibbana. If this is the direction in which we also wish to go, then it is to these individuals that we should turn for refuge:

The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types [of noble disciples] when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.

But going for refuge doesn’t stop there. We are also asked to turn to the monastic community (bhikkhu-sangha) for refuge, for it is thanks to the unbroken lineage of this 2,600-year-old institution that we are fortunate enough today to be able to hear the teachings. Moreover, the living example of the monastic community serves to remind us of the immense value of generosity, of living a morally upright life, of renunciation — in short, it reminds us that it is indeed possible to live a life fully in tune with every aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. In reality, of course, not every monk or nun necessarily lives up to the Buddha’s high standards of conduct. For this reason it is to the institution of the Sangha that we turn to refuge, not to the individual members themselves. This is the Sangha to which lay people have turned since the time of the Buddha:

I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.

So it is these exceptional groups of people — the ariya-sangha and the bhikkhu-sangha — that define the Third Gem and Refuge; it is to these groups that we are asked to turn for refuge, not to some vaguely-defined community of like-minded Dhamma friends and fellow meditators. I In which group would you rather put your trust?

In an effort to resolve this confusion, some writers have proposed various alternatives to the word “sangha” to describe gatherings and communities of Dhamma companions. But this still leaves me wondering why we must invoke the Pali language here at all.

Does a meditation group really need a special name? Why not simply call it a “meditation group” and leave it at that?

“Sangha” is an important term with a rich and precise meaning. It stands for something truly extraordinary and brilliant that can constantly remind us of the highest and most excellent possibilities the Path has to offer. Let’s use it well.

4. Who is Maitreya (Metteyya)?Have there been other Buddhas? – What’s the difference between a Buddha and an arahant?
What’s a “Private Buddha” (paccekabuddha)?

According to Theravada tradition, many Buddhas have come and gone over countless eons. Every once in a great while, after a long period of spiritual darkness blankets the world, an individual may be born who, through his own efforts, rediscovers the long-forgotten path to Awakening and liberates himself once and for all from the long round of rebirth, thereby becoming an arahant (“worthy one”, one who has fully realized Awakening). If such a being does not share his discovery with others he is called a “Silent” or “Private” Buddha (paccekabuddha). If he delivers his message (sasana)to the world he is called, simply, a Buddha. Some of a Buddha’s followers may themselves become arahants, but they are not Buddhas, since they relied on a Buddha to show them the way to Awakening. (All Buddhas and paccekabuddhas are arahants, but not all arahants are Buddhas or paccekabuddhas.) No matter how far and wide the sasana spreads, sooner or later it succumbs to the inexorable law of anicca (impermanence), and fades from memory. The world descends again into darkness, and the eons-long cycle repeats.
The most recent Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama in India in the sixth century BCE. He is the one we usually mean when we refer to “The Buddha”.

The next Buddha to appear is said to be Maitreya (Skt; Pali: Metteyya), a bodhisatta currently residing in the Tusita heavens. Legend has it that at some time in the far distant future, once the teachings of the current Buddha have long been forgotten, he will be reborn as a human being, rediscover the Four Noble Truths, and teach the Noble Eightfold Path once again. Although he plays an important role in some Mahayana Buddhist traditions, whose followers appeal to him for favorable rebirth and salvation, he plays an insignificant role in Theravada. I believe he’s mentioned only once, in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26; The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel):

[The Buddha:] And in that time of the people with an eighty-thousand-year life-span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable Trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now. — “The Long Discourses of the Buddha” (formerly “Thus Have I Heard”), Maurice Walshe, trans. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987), p 403.

Maitreya is often depicted in Chinese and Japanese art as that jolly fellow with the large belly.

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One Response to “Theravada Buddhism FAQ’s”

  1. Quincy Kohr

    Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.


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